Combatting bias is the key to building back better

Kelly Hart looks at the active steps to improve inclusion, reduce bias and combat the impact of that pandemic

One of the primary issues laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic is the structural inequality and lack of opportunity for minority groups when it comes to work, pay and progression in the workplace.

With these minority groups also being hit hardest by the effects of the pandemic, the case for taking even greater action on diversity and inclusion is greater than it has ever been before.

While most organisations will need to act quickly to make up for the lost ground of the past year, perhaps the most important action they can take today is to take stock of the biases, exclusionary behaviour, and attitudes that have been triggered by (and have taken hold) during the year of the pandemic. (For a full exploration of this topic, check out the opening article of this series here).

And if individual action is key to tackling bias and ultimately supporting inclusion and diversity, then it is critical for individuals to take stock of where they are today and the actions to take to best affect change.

Where to start: understanding your own bias

It is entirely possible to reorientate ourselves to become more inclusive and combat those behaviours that drive exclusion. This can be achieved if we ensure that we act consciously and with rational thought. But we can only do this by understanding what biases we naturally hold before we can even begin to move forward.

Bias is born from the cognitive short-cuts taken by our brains to make rapid decisions when we are faced with a deluge of information that we can’t process quickly enough. We do this by forming thoughts based on previous experiences, external messages and innate evolutionary protection mechanisms.

As much as we like to think ourselves immune to bias – unconscious or otherwise – the opposite is fundamentally true. We are all naturally biased to the extent that even when we are placed into a situation where the way we act is definitively biased, and it is pointed out to us, we still maintain that we are objective!

A first action for any individual is to understand, challenge and acknowledge these biases.

An excellent tool is the ‘Project Implicit’ test from Harvard University, highlighting your automatic preferences. The tool covers several key areas where we are likely to be biased, such as race, gender, age and weight. Realising your own biases helps you recognise the extent to which they impact your everyday decisions. This is the first step towards consciously paving the way to overriding them.

Challenging your bias

Once you are aware of your biases, you can begin to address them. This is something that is slightly less straightforward.

Many diversity and inclusion professionals know that unconscious bias training (UBT) simply isn’t enough – it raises awareness of the issues, but it doesn’t actually address them.

UBT has been found to fail in several areas; a short-term course just isn’t effective in changing people, it reinforces stereotypes, and it is more than likely simply going to create a defensive response.

What does work, however, is designing our way out of inequality by neutralising external forces that may reinforce our bias. This fixes the systemic problems and helps to redefine the environment, and therefore, what our brain is exposed to and subconsciously learns from.

Leadership matters

A key part of addressing the issue starts with our leaders. While individuals can (and should) act as agents of change, the most influential people are those with increased visibility and influence. If leaders create the boundaries of what is “acceptable” behaviour and set the tone for what others say or do, then leaders have to step forward and model inclusive behaviour.

It is hard here to resist a comparison between President Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden’s inclusive, empathetic language is in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s polarising talk around immigrants, the ‘China Virus’, or the Black Lives Matter movement.

Whether you are the leader of the free world, or the figurehead for a team or organisation, leading with empathy steers us away from “othering” individuals or falling back on automatic stereotyping that naturally leads to exclusion instead of inclusion.

Collaborate to progress

The past year has isolated us from everyone except those closest to us.

Therefore, a key priority must be to look at how we can actively rebuild teams and relationships across silos. This is particularly important as we move towards long-term hybrid working; as a key determinant of culture, inclusivity can’t be left to chance.

One way to push back on the divisive effects of the pandemic is to actively focus on what we have in common with people from other walks of life.

We have seen this play out in real-time; as the pandemic spread and the virus became a global issue instead of a localised threat, racist attacks have somewhat lessened. Countries have shared resources, and we have achieved the unthinkable with a global vaccine created and distributed in under a year.

Step out of the echo chamber

A final focus area is to take control of one of the biggest drivers of individual bias: the news and social media. These catalyse the creation of “echo chambers”, which polarise, build, and reinforce prejudice and division.

Our passive consumption of personalised news, views and search engine results means that unless we take proactive steps to find a different perspective or contrasting point of view, we end up living a filtered life where our own beliefs and perceptions of the world are reflected straight back at us.

When we are never offered an opposing view to our own, we lack the ability to make an informed decision about the topic at hand. Individuals need to learn to avoid the tricks deployed to capture our attention and avoid participation in digital tribes, which can fuel subconscious bias.

Here, we can take steps to address this without having to abstain entirely from media and social media consumption.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the prime purpose of social media and the mainstream media is to keep you, the user, engaged – ultimately creating online pockets of tribalism. However harmless the tribe may seem on the inside, it is likely increasing animosity towards those on the outside – think fitness blogs/internalised fatphobia.

Secondly, we can practise being more inclusive both online and in person. Engaging more with people or news sources with different viewpoints is key to breaking out of the echo chambers that algorithms create for us and ultimately achieve a more objective perspective.

Thirdly, we shouldn’t blindly follow our tribe leaders – regardless of whether they are global leaders, influencers or commentators – without question. Humans with power are just as fallible as those without, and often they practise less empathy than they should, making them poor role models.

The case for proactive action

At the end of a tumultuous year where our lives have been upended, it is understandable that we want to go some way back to the ways of working that were familiar from before.

The danger of doing this, however, is that we may sleepwalk into a place where we haven’t taken account of the lasting impact of the past year on the way we work, relate to others and consume information.

The increased xenophobia that has been documented since the pandemic began is significant because it has highlighted just how strong our evolutionary biases are and how easily they can be triggered.

I truly believe that to solve a problem fully, we must understand it. Understanding where our biases originate from and what triggers them is key to overriding it.

I hope that by understanding that humans are more than their unconscious, irrational and tribalistic minds, we can make substantial steps towards overriding them together by practising empathy, inclusion, and remembering our common humanity.

Kelly Hart leads the Insights team at the Executive Coaching Consultancy.For a fully referenced version of this article please visit here.

The next article in this series will look at the role of empathetic leadership and how it is key not only to diversity and inclusion but to commercial success in a world striving for better environmental, sustainability and governance performance
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